Nobody knows better than retailers how difficult the change of seasons can be. You have to keep the snow shovels out, but you need room for bulbs and seeds. The change of seasons often catches people without a coat when they need one or makes folks wish for shorts and a T-shirt when they've dressed too warmly. This yo-yoing weather seems to make us particularly susceptible to colds, flu and allergies. However, retailers have a number of herbal remedies in their arsenal to help customers ease seasonal transitions. Traditional Chinese medicine, which has been practiced for several millennia, takes an approach vastly different from Western health systems.
"In Western medicine, they treat the disease," explains Kandace Cahill of Essential Being Health in Boulder, Colo. Cahill is a diplomate of Oriental medicine, having a national certification in acupuncture and Chinese herbs. "In traditional Chinese medicine, I could get 10 people coming in with high blood pressure and I could prescribe 10 different formulas because each person is so different."
To make a diagnosis, Cahill first considers the body's internal environment. For instance, does the patient feel hot or cold in certain parts of the body? She considers the organs, as well as the chi (sometimes spelled qi), which is the energy that flows through the body and the outside world. Finally, she considers the external environment. Cahill explains that the body is a reflection of the outside world, so seasons and environment make a big difference when diagnosing a patient.
Unlike Western medicine, which often takes a botanical and extracts a single beneficial substance (vitamin C, for instance), TCM practitioners use a combination of herbs to try to bring all the factors in the body into balance. There are five elements to this system: fire, which is connected with summer; metal, which is connected with fall; water, connected to winter; wood, connected with spring; and earth. During the change of the seasons, the chi flows back to the earth. The organs connected with the earth are the stomach and the spleen—organs that affect digestion and the immune system. This diminished immunity might explain why people are particularly susceptible to colds and allergies during seasonal changes.
"It sounds confusing because it is unknown, but once you understand a few concepts, the language of Chinese medicine is very practical and direct," says Joel Harvey, co-founder of Dr. Shen's, a Chinese medicine formula manufacturer.
Harvey, a licensed acupuncturist in California, has worked to narrow down the hundreds of herbal formulas to about 15 SKUs for Dr. Shen's. Over the past 20 years, he has identified common ailments, and then tested each remedy through Dr. Shen's clinic for about two years. "When we put out a product, it has to be safe even when it is misused," Harvey says. He uses only traditional formulas with an evolutionary track record of at least 2,000 years. He cautions against medicines that veer from tradition by throwing in one familiar ingredient like echinacea to appeal to a Western market.
"Our plan is to only put out formulas for complaints where a patient is better off not seeing a doctor, like a cold," Harvey says. About 80 percent of the herbal market has to do with cold and flu remedies, he notes. "That is because Western medicine is so unsuccessful at treating flus and colds. People are pretty good at knowing what works."
In the fall, plants begin to pull their energy into their roots, making it a good time to use root supplements from dandelion and burdock, says Helen Joffe, an herbalist at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Boulder, Colo. Spring is when plants put their energy into flowering, so that's an ideal time to take flower supplements. Western herbalists also provide spring tonics that are meant to be taken in the spring.
To educate consumers, Dr. Shen's lists herbs by their Chinese names, botanical names and their English names, and the function of the formula is on the bottle.
"We feel it is irresponsible not to put the function of the formula on the bottle," Harvey says. "Any claim made is not made in terms of Western medicine but in Chinese terms. So, instead of 'soothes insomnia,' we say, 'nourishes the heart and calms the spirits.'"
Hope Bentley is a Vermont-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 37